Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian

For two hours every week for the past 10 years, several parishioners have been gathering privately at St. Mary, Blacksburg, to discuss the mental health challenges they face and to support and pray for each other in the light of their Catholic faith.

The St. Mary’s Prayer and Support Group for the Promotion of Mental Health and Recovery marked its 10th anniversary on Sunday, Feb. 17. Since its inception, the confidential group has supported New River Valley-area Catholics dealing with a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, grief, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, among others. 

“We hope to remove the stigma of mental illness because it is an illness that can be treated,” said Dr. Irma Silva-Barbeau, who founded and co-facilitates the group. “So many people suffer in silence and isolation, even though they may look like they are fine to the rest of the world.”

She said the purpose of the group is not to provide treatment, but to offer faith-based support. It is founded on prayer, friendship and sharing of experiences. Silva-Barbeau and co-facilitator Cecile Dietrich do urge members to seek professional help if necessary. 

“We pray together and ask, ‘How are you doing? Do you feel you need counseling? How are you doing with your medicine?’ But mostly it’s just to listen,” said Silva-Barbeau, whose doctorate is in nutrition.

Sometimes members need direction to other resources for more information or to secure therapy, food or employment. Often they simply need to share their struggles in a safe, trustworthy, compassionate environment.

The group is open to parishioners in the cluster of three churches that includes Holy Spirit, Christiansburg, and St. Jude, Radford, as well as St. Mary.

Dietrich, who joined Silva-Barbeau three years ago, is a registered nurse with psychiatric training. Both women are secular discalced Carmelites committed to contemplative prayer and apostolic zeal in the tradition of Carmelite saints. 

The element of faith, which is not always discussed in secular mental health environments, may be the missing piece for some people. 

“We come from the foundation of a Catholic identity: that we are all daughters and sons of God,” said Dietrich.

The idea for the group simply came one day to Silva-Barbeau, an author and speaker. 

“I know that God simply put this in my heart,” she said. 

In 2009, with the Blacksburg community still reeling from the Virginia Tech tragedy, she wondered how many people were struggling privately with mental health issues. 

After presenting her idea for a support group and receiving permission to proceed, she and former parish nurse Charlene Flick co-facilitated the first meetings. Since then, participant numbers have ranged from one to 15 adults, with an average of five attending. The group has included men and women, single and married, and couples. Some stay for months; others come and go. The group follows careful, diocesan-approved guidelines, especially for privacy. 

Originally it was called the St. Thérèse of Lisieux Mental Health Prayer and Support Group, after the much-loved saint who struggled with psychological challenges. A statue of St. Thérèse stands in the common area of the church. The group recently changed its name to identify it with its parish.

Although Father John Asare, pastor of St. Mary, does not attend the meetings, as they are closed to non-members, he is allowed to visit occasionally. 

“What I see about this group is that it provides true comfort for the members,” he said. “The members see the meeting times as the occasions to find people who understand and share their concerns.” He added that since the discussions are confidential, members feel more open to sharing. 

“The mere fact that they come to find true companionship serves as joy to them because they know that they are not alone in their struggles,” the priest said. “And it is always good to pray for each other.”

Deacon Mike Ellerbrock of St. Mary emphasized the importance of community. 

“Each of us broken and vulnerable, we travel this earthly journey together, following the Lord’s footsteps to accompany those pilgrims and families facing mental challenges,” he wrote via email. “St. Mary’s support group ministers to some of God’s most precious children.”

Besides providing ongoing support for its members, the group has held a yearly “book and pastry” sale fundraiser, written to support former members through a holiday letter-writing campaign, established an outreach program of visiting and sending gift packages to those in area hospitals and group homes, started a church-wide novena, connected with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Guild of St. Benedict Joseph Labré for information and training, hosted a speaker who conducted healing prayer, and other activities. A walking labyrinth for meditation is also being built at the church.

Silva-Barbeau has heard from people nationwide who wish to implement something similar. She and Dietrich hope other parishes in the diocese will do likewise. 

“Groups like ours are needed in every parish cluster,” Dietrich said.

“Our goal is to help people get back to their joyous selves, promoting healing and recovery,” said Silva-Barbeau. “And to support their spirituality and connection to God.”   

Editor’s note: Those interested in learning more about the St. Mary’s Prayer and Support Group for the Promotion of Mental Health and Recovery should go to https://stmarysblacks burg.org/mental-health-support.